It’s the 4th of July, and I’m thinking about immigration.
I’m thinking about my own immigration, and the immigration policies of the current American administration, and what a nation should stand for, who it has a responsibility to stand for.
Early this morning, I went to Kunitachi, which is a small stop on the Chuo line near Tachikawa, and I walked six minutes from the bus stop to an overgrown, run down, trash-covered drive. The drive ended in a corrugated metal wall, and perpendicular to the wall was the immigration bureau for western Tokyo. I waited in line for an hour and a half to be seen about extending my visa, and when I submitted my papers it turned out I was missing something. It was just a tax form from before I moved to my new apartment, and the agent gave me a pre-paid envelope to send to the bureau later.
I am in no way praising Japan’s immigration policies or processes. In fact, I have recently been thinking about how Japan escapes strangely unscathed from discussions in the news about immigration, refugees, racism, and all manner of social and politics offenses racked up by other “developed” countries. That’s a different post though, I think.
However, as an American immigrating just about anywhere, the process is easy. In terms of travel, people often say that an American passport will get you anywhere in the world (except Iran, which my friend has trouble visiting even though his family is Iranian). Maybe you need to apply for a visa first, but unless you do something crazy or illegal, nothing stands in your way as long as you have an American passport. In fact, I knew some people in China who did things that were both crazy and illegal, and they were permitted to stay in the country. To me, the definition of privilege is when the Chinese Communist Party turns a blind eye.
Being an American moving to a foreign country is also incredibly easy. At the immigration office, everything was in Japanese and English. Because Japan is a xenophobic little archipelago, when you rent an apartment the real estate agent must make sure that landlords will rent to foreigners. However, I listened to my agent explicitly reassure many landlords that I was American, not from the Middle East or anywhere in Africa, and there was little problem.
While I was not excited to go to immigration this morning, I knew there would be no problem. There is no conceivable reason why I would be denied a visa. I can even travel out of the country while it is being processed, which means I can go on vacation in Paris in a few weeks, hop over to London, and come back to Tokyo with no incident. If I had infinite time and money, I could even stop in China because Americans get a special visa that lasts 10 years now.
As an American*, I feel like I can do anything. I can go anywhere. I can move anywhere, provided I can get a job. And in Japan, at least, no one tells me to learn their language or go back to where I came from. Actually, I wish they would because people constantly assuming I am a tourist is really annoying and yes, offensive. But it’s offensive in the most benign sense of the word.
As an American, I have all the privileges this world has can offer. And America itself, when it comes to offering these privileges to others, is one of the stingiest countries in the world.
When I say I can see why so many people want to move to America, to become Americans, it’s not out of love for the country. Rather, it’s just an economical assessment of the world’s balance of power.
Take the average American’s image of an immigrant–a Mexican or South American person who probably lived in unstable conditions and decided to try to escape to America across the border. First of all, no one would do something so dangerous unless they had literally no other choice. Similarly, in Europe, no one gets on a tiny fucking boat and tries to escape to Italy because they felt like going for a sail.
Second of all, if you are weighing your options of where you can live if not your home country, does America not seem ideal? America, as it likes to remind the world loudly and often, is the leader of the free world, where rights are inalienable, where all children get an education, where everyone has enough food to eat, where houses are massive, where your passport will open the door to every other country. Is it any wonder that people want to come, with such a beautiful myth being told? Particularly if you have children, whose futures you care about more than your own present, as any parent would.
But when faced with these people who have bought the myth that America sells itself and the world, what does the American government do?
It turns them away. It deports them. It divides families. If it lets them in, it turns around and spits in their faces and says that they are uneducated, that they are dangerous, that they are coming for our women, that they are rapists and child molesters, that they need to learn our fucking language and get a job like the rest of us and stop leeching off of our taxes.
The last point is particularly funny to me, like not in a haha way but in a surrealist way.
To digress slightly: one of my students is writing a (totally kickass) essay on the society she wants to be realized. She watches the Japanese equivalent of C-Span in her free time and counts how many politicians are sleeping. She reads the news about all the sex and bribery and corruption scandals in the Japanese government. She wonders where her parents taxes go, and who is using them for personal gain. In her ideal society, politicians work for the people, and get paid a livable salary without all the extra perks they currently enjoy. In her ideal society, people can follow clearly where their taxes go, and the taxes go back to the people.
Most Americans have no idea where their taxes go. What most Americans can accurately surmise, however, is that their taxes do not go back to the people. If they did, upper class schools would not be losing their arts funding, lower class schools would not be in literal derelict buildings, every city in America would have drinkable water, towns would not stow nuclear waste in open containers, roads would be paved.
And yet, when it comes to the issue of immigration, or hell, even just raising American citizens out of poverty, people cry for their taxes. How can our hard-earned money go to support people who can’t even speak English? (This is something I hear in relation to actual immigrants and also poor Blacks, who are considered not to really speak English.)
So where is your hard-earned money going now?
And the thing about this is that, for now, the middle and upper classes in America can afford not to know the answer. Because they still enjoy so many, many privileges. Even my parents, who have struggled financially, cannot even imagine how the lower classes in American live. Certainly, my parents have legitimate problems. They have legitimately suffered. But they have never had their lives threatened in the way that the poor have. And their daughter has never had her immigration status questioned in any country where she has lived.
Americans enjoy unique privileges at home and abroad. Our job then, when someone wants a seat at this particular table of ours (which, by the way, we have talked up as being the absolute best table, with the best food and the best view of the rest of the party, and also the best company), is not to look down on them from our position of privilege and say, “Yeah, you wish you were us.”
It’s the same as the classic labor issue–when two employees doing the same job have different salaries, the impulse is to say that the person with the higher salary doesn’t deserve it for doing the same work as the person with the lower salary. In fact, the right thing to do is to demand that both workers get the higher salary.
To return to our table, then, our job is to reach out and pull everyone who wants a seat up to sit with us. And that extends to other American citizens. This is perhaps stretching the metaphor but–our table is so much higher than everyone else’s because it is resting on the backs of our own citizens. First, we used slaves as a foundation, and then we stacked the poor classes on top of each other, and we in the middle and upper classes perched our table on our backs and said, “Look what a fine position we’ve got.”
Of course, if we lift up those one whom the table rests–those who go to the schools in the derelict buildings, those whose streets are not paved, those who do not have clean drinking water and live side by side with barrels of nuclear waste–our position probably will get lower. It costs money to pave roads, to clean the water, to support immigrants and refugees and their families.
But if that isn’t worth “our hard-earned taxes”, then what is? A politician’s salary? Our inflated defence budget built to sustain wars that no one wants and that have actually created the refugee crisis? America is in a unique position because other countries do follow America’s example (for better or for worse). A country as powerful as America choosing to put aside profit, pride, and pure nationalism to accept immigrants and refugees could go so far.
And if perhaps, we have less food at our table when more people are sitting with us–do we need all the food we have now? Literally speaking, America is one of the biggest sources of food waste in the world. Metaphorically speaking, it is better to live at subsistence level if it means helping others than to live excessively while others suffer.
The last thing I want to do is appeal to nationalism to make the case for supporting immigrants. But America prides itself so much on what an amazing way of life it offers its citizens. Not only does that come with the huge caveat of citizens* (*middle- and upper-class, preferably white and suburban), but it is something which is refused to those who honestly seek it as per government policy.
Those words on the bottom of the Statue of Liberty–Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!–have had dubious truthiness since they were first carved. But holding up my experience at immigration today next to the literally endless headlines on government-sanctioned offences committed against immigrants on American soil, I can’t help thinking–they have never been less true.
*gotta definitely qualify that by saying as an able-bodied white American from the upper middle class